This week Randy Alcorn joins us. He is the author of the new book, Happiness, a book you’ll want to check out. Randy, as you know, God is happy. Scripture tells us that. So if God is so fundamentally and essentially happy all the time, in himself, why does he seem so often ill-tempered in the biblical stories?*
Well, I think what we’ve got to do is realize that sin is a reality in this world and that suffering that comes out of sin. We are under the fall. We are under the curse. Even though Christ has become a curse for us who believe in him (Galatians 3:13), we recognize that we still face the realities of sin and suffering in this life.
And this sin that infiltrates the world is a temporary condition. I think this is the key to understanding how it is that God could be, from eternity past, utterly happy within himself — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — delighting in each other.
Problem of Sin
I developed this theme in the book and others have developed it of course. John Piper in The Pleasures of God develops it tremendously and somewhat in Desiring God as well. And that is this union of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father who says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). And Luke 10:20–21 says that Jesus then rejoiced in the Holy Spirit after telling his disciples to rejoice that their names are written in heaven.
But he has always been happy. He will always be happy. And he is predominantly happy now. Sin is a temporary condition. So the causes for God’s unhappiness are themselves temporary. His primary identity is as a happy God, not an unhappy one. And sin is so prevalent, and the Bible is written to deal with the sin problem and point out the sin problem.
Hence, we often do see a God with anger and wrath, and it is easy to overlook all of the lovingkindness passages and all of the passages about God delighting in his people, and God being pleased, and in Jesus’s words, the master saying to the servant, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Enter into your master’s happiness. Enter into a happiness far more ancient than the world itself — a happiness that preceded all creation, a happiness that goes on undaunted and will continue forever” (Matthew 25:21).
And God not only says this to us so that at the end of our life we might be welcomed into his happiness, but so that we can front-load, so to speak, that happiness into our life right now because of his redemptive work.
Man of Sorrows — and Joy
But even then, people will say, for instance, that Jesus is called “the man of sorrows.” And I got this a lot from people, when I told them I was writing a book called Happiness.
By the way, unbelievers would always think it was great when I would tell them I was writing about happiness. And then when I would say it to believers they would say, “Oh, wait a minute.” They scrunch up their faces. “Did you mean joy? I mean, what are you doing talking about happiness?” I got a couple-page letter from a pastor telling me why I shouldn’t write on the subject of happiness. But for unbelievers they see the appeal of it, because that’s what they long for.
But look at Jesus. He’s called “the man of sorrows,” which people point out, but that’s in Isaiah 53:3, and it is specifically in relationship to his redemptive work: “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” And he is pierced for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities and all of that (verse 5). But even that redemptive work was done “for the joy . . . set before him,” according to Hebrews 12:2.
So if we picture Jesus going around in perpetual sadness or anger, grumbling, and looking to condemn more than to extend grace, then we are really not seeing the Jesus of the Bible.
What God Can’t Give
And children were attracted to him, by the way. And who are children attracted to? They are not attracted to unhappy people.
When people today say, “I have got the joy of Jesus way, way deep in my heart, even though my life is pretty miserable.” It is like, “Well, you know what? I think that joy needs to work its way to your face once in a while.” After all, we are called to “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4).
And if God were not happy, he would not call us to be happy. And furthermore, if God were not happy, he could not be the source of our happiness, because God can’t give us what he doesn’t have. We are to value joy, happiness, gladness, delight precisely because our God is characterized by that, and the gospel we preach to people should be a gospel of a holy God, yes, but also of a happy God.
Passages like 1 Timothy 1:11 and 6:15 explicitly tell us God is happy, or “blessed” as most translations put it.
God Who Delights
I heard you recently argue, in another interview, that all the times in the Bible that talk about God seeking to delight in someone or something, means that God is essentially joyful, because he is always postured to delight. That’s a fascinating point.
Exactly — because who delights? A person who has the capacity to delight and the desire and orientation to delight — a person who delights in delighting, who is pleased by pleasure, who is happy in happiness.
That is so insightful. And some theologians say that God’s wrath is the flip side of his love: no love, no wrath. Can we say that God’s anger against sin is the flip side of his desire for his creation to rejoice?
Yes, absolutely. Because I think the very fact that he is unhappy with sin is an indicator that sin is what robs people of happiness. So he is happy with that which is not only in conformity to his holy standards, but that which is in conformity to his happiness and delight. He wants the best for us. He sincerely wants for us to participate in his happiness and his joy and his delight. And sin is the enemy of all that.